Posted on March 16, 1992 in Washington Watch
As the first half of the 1992 U.S. Presidential primary season stumbled to a close, the best one can say is that “it hasn’t been neat or pretty—but it has been interesting.”
George Bush’s renomination as the Republican candidate to run for reelection in November was never in doubt. After winning every contest in every region of the country during the past two weeks, it is now certain. Pat Buchanan’s challenge has now shrunk to that of a mere nuisance. And yet, Buchanan will not go away.
Until now the President has failed to win much more 70% of the Republican vote and Buchanan still is able to ring up at least a 25% protest vote. While this is not enough to take the nomination away from the President, winning was never a realistic goal for Buchanan. His sights are on the 1996 race, and establishing himself as the spokesperson for conservative agenda.
Analysts fault the President’s campaign team for not running a more defined and aggressive campaign. By starting late and changing themes frequently, the President has not helped his reelection efforts. Bush gave the Democrats a five month head start and therefore was forced to begin his own campaign on the defensive. And once it finally began running in January, the Bush team found itself attacked on a second front. A three month pounding from the left and the right has left the President appearing weak and out of touch—he seems more like the old George Bush, weak and indecisive.
Polls in some states show Bush losing to Clinton, and running no better than even in the rest. The President’s steadily declining popularity is a result of taking too many punches over the course of weeks without ever fighting back. Like Carter in 1980 and Dukakis in 1988, Bush lost control of the themes of the campaign, developed no counter-message, and continued to bleed.
The Gulf War, it will be remembered, helped George Bush redefine his presidency and himself. Long plagued by the image of being an upper-class Northeastern `wimp’ who had no real guiding political principles, the President emerged from the Gulf War as a strong leader, in touch with people and a fighter for principles. His strong stand for Middle East peace also helped redefine his image.
But while the President’s actions in foreign affairs were strong and decisive, his domestic advisory team cautioned against any quick action on the slumping economy. This, in retrospect, is what weakened the President. It is not simply the economy that must recover to improve Bush’s chances of winning—the President’s campaign must recover as well.
In politics, perception and media image are reality. While it is true that the economy is in a slump, it is not as bad as the public perceives it to be. Fed by political attacks and by negative media, the public has come to believe that the economy is in a near depression. This explains why Bush’s popularity and performance approval polls have continued to drop, even while the economy shows signs of improving. The Bush campaign can unmake this perception by capturing the media with a sharp, appealing and positive message of strength.
Apparently the White House has now received the message and is working to correct the problem. The old White House crew is out and a new, stronger, campaign team is in. In fact the new team includes many of the big players who engineered the President’s victory in 1988. Rich Bond, who served as top deputy to the late Lee Atwater (Bush’s tough 1988 campaign manager) is now running the Republican Party. Peggy Noonan, Reagan’s remarkable speech writer who wrote Bush’s impressive 1988 Convention speech is also back. And there are reports that Roger Ailes, the media professional who did Bush’s 1988 campaign may also return.
All this could spark a tough, more focused and better defined message from the President’s campaign, which is necessary to restore public confidence and combat the `wimp’ image one more time.
This is what Bush did in 1988. This is what he did during the Gulf War. And this is what he must do to turn this campaign around.
The eleven primaries and caucuses of the fabled Super Tuesday gave Bill Clinton his expected boost in the polls and delegates needed to win the nomination. But Clinton’s opponents pointed out that the results only reaffirmed the regional patterns that so characterize the Democratic electorate. Clinton won the eight states in the South, Tsongas won the two states in the Northeast, and Brown won the key contest in the West.
More important to Clinton’s claim to be the front runner were his two victories in the two Midwestern states of Illinois and Michigan this week. These Midwestern states were neutral territory for the three remaining Democratic candidates. Clinton’s 51% in both was impressive.
Tsongas has now withdrawn from the race, which seems to hurt the Brown campaign more than it helps. For while Brown’s self-styled low-cost people’s campaign and its attacks on “politics-as-usual” are interesting, Brown will find it difficult to compete in a national two-man race. Only a major scandal or a larger than expected “ABC” (Anybody but Clinton) vote could make Brown a real national contender.
The path to Clinton’s winning the nomination now seems clear, though some Democratic leaders have some reservations.
Under the surface of Clinton’s support lie deep fault lines of unrest in the Democratic party. Even at this late date, fully one-half of all Democratic voters still want to see someone else enter the race. A further indication of voter concern is the low turnout thus far: the primaries have averaged 18% voter turnout, while the caucuses have been averaging on 3%.
Clinton has scored well with black voters and low-income whites, giving hope to some that he can revive the old Democratic coalition. But black turnout has been about 25% lower this year than 1988. And in several southern states some 60% – 70% of the White vote was for Republican, marking a significant shift in voting patterns.
Democratic members of Congress, who form a significant block of delegates to the Democratic convention, have been hesitant to endorse any of the candidates. And one can hardly blame them, considering how the candidates refer to Congress in their stump speeches.
The remaining Democratic candidates are bashing Congress, including Congressional Democrats, for being “part of the problem.” Specifically, they have attacked the pay raise Congress granted itself last year and are helping stir the furor over the check-bouncing scandal. With members of Congress already facing difficult reelection campaigns of their own, it is easy to see how they can be less than enthusiastic about their party’s candidates for President.
Further, some Democrats are concerned that Clinton’s attempt to run as an anti-Washington outsider may backfire in the general election. Clinton is, after all, a co-founder of the Democratic Leadership Council, which is an insider group of Democratic elected officials. And then there are the “scandals” and “rumor”. As I said, Clinton’s path to the nomination seems clear.
As a final note, it now seems certain that there will be at least one, and maybe two, major independent campaigns for the presidency in 1992, potentially challenging both parties’ nominees from the right and the left.
H. Ross Perot, a Texas billionaire businessman has begun an exploratory effort to run a third-party campaign. He has already secured a position on the ballot in Tennessee and is organizing in other states as well. His campaign will focus on anti-politics, pro-business and anti-Gulf War themes. Jerry Brown’s campaign has also shown signs over the last three weeks that he has intentions to run beyond the Democratic Convention and launch and independent political effort on the left.
If only Perot runs, he could siphon off 6%-10% of the Republican vote in Texas, Florida and California, which would seriously threaten George Bush’s reelection effort. If both Perot and Brown run, they would siphon off the same 6%-10% on each side, thereby restoring balance to the field.
Expect more on this subject later.
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